Long Way To Go

I saw my counsellor this week. One thing she reminded me of was that there are three stages of healing: 1) safety and stabilization, 2) remembrance and grieving, and 3) making meaning. I've never been this stable before. Even before Carrie went back to school, we fought about certain things and could never reach an understanding. We would have had to settle for a compromise, and the topic would just come up again at a later date. Nowadays, some of my bigger problems are behind me, so I can actually just relax at the Safety and Stabilization stage for a while. I don't have to leave this stage if I don't want to, and now my problems aren't forcing me to deal with them immediately. It feels great.

Looking back, I can see that I've made huge progress, but looking forward, there are some huge problems that feel like I'll never recover from, though my counsellor assures me that I will. One thing I learned this week is that PTSD can be complex. There is PTSD from a single traumatic event, but then there's the complex kind from repeated trauma and abuse. Another topic is boundaries. It's still hard for me to define and defend them because it's a trigger point. Let's dive right in.

I feel this image. Artist's rendition of PTSD Artist Shawn Coss depicted some mental illnesses for #inktober. Read the top-level comments on his blog. A lot of people with PTSD can really identify with this drawing. I do feel like I'm trapped and battling this enormous enemy, but what the picture can't really show you is that the aggressor isn't there anymore. They're long gone, but the effects they left on you will last for years until you deal with them. The earlier, the better.

I've referenced my childhood sexual abuse a lot recently, but the deeper impact that I'm dealing with is really from the years of emotional and spiritual abuse. My counsellor contrasted a healthy adult with a stable childhood experiencing a single traumatic event versus an adult with an unstable childhood and numerous traumas from repeated abuse. The former would always be more resilient and capable of fighting back against the effects of the trauma. The reason I still don't talk to my parents is because I get nothing useful out of it. They sap all my energy fussing about pointless things, and I can't carry on with my life while keeping in contact with them. It's similar to why I quit my job. I have a lot of emotional problems that are hard to handle in a healthy manner, and my parents are a large contributing factor to those problems, both in the past and present. I'm still struggling with my complex PTSD.

One of the trigger points for my PTSD is in defining and protecting my boundaries. The last little while, I've tried to say no to people when our interests don't align. This causes a huge spike in my anxiety as I immediately get defensive because I'm afraid they'll freak out at me. I'm used to being a people pleaser. The people I'm saying no to are some of my biggest supporters, so it's shocking how hard it is for me despite how understanding they've been throughout my recovery. It's not their fault, but somewhere within me, there are traumatic memories of people close to me refusing the boundaries I drew, violating them deeply and repeatedly. Even in my thoughts, I'm extremely defensive, arguing with someone who's not there and yet is taking ridiculous positions. My relationship with my parents was such that they would get whatever they wanted from me, no matter how much I protested.

An example is when visiting relatives, one uncle asked to have a serious chat with me. I thought I was being a bad house guest or something, but instead, he told me how he had talked to my mom about not babying me. In the week or so that we stayed with them, he observed that my mom neglected my input and feedback about how I was doing, how I was enjoying my vacation, what I wanted to do, all those good things. I would express my preferences, but Mama always knew best and ignored my input. You know, normal family vacation stuff; it was all her money that paid for the trip anyhow. My uncle told me how his mom still does that to him, despite being something like 90 years old and 60 respectively. I get that some parents are always treating their children like toddlers and infants, but I've never heard of those parents being confronted about it. I'm a mama's boy, and I even think that's a large reason why I'm successful and emotionally aware; see the Grant Study for the impact of a mother's influence on a man's success later in life. However, most people treat it like there's no harm in letting your parents take care of you. Parenting should be about preparing your children for adulthood. It's much more likely that my mom is soothing her own insecurity of feeling unneeded by her favourite child (yes, she told me once, which I thought you weren't supposed to do). I do need my mom, but children need different things from their parents through each stage of development. There is a distinct possibility that my uncle was offside in confronting my mom and in talking to me, especially as he was dealing with the same problem and probably couldn't clearly see my dynamic with my mom. But instead, I think that only enhances the point that my parents violated my boundaries despite my objections. If she didn't receive feedback from their own relative, from their peer in age, culture, religion, etc., why would she listen to me, her lowly and foolish son? A lot of the insights about my family I learned from outsiders when comparing notes in those deep conversations you have with mature people over a drink or a meal. "Yo, that's not normal. My cousins went through such and such experience, and it messed with their heads." I could handle my mom treating me like a teenager, but she treated me like a toddler. That's one example of how she didn't respect my boundaries.

Now onto my dad. Sigh.

Piano. We all started at a young age, around 5 years old, and I played until I was 17. We learned through the Suzuki Method International. It's designed to encourage the love of music by having an intuitive knowledge of your songs through repeated listening of different performances and memorization. Lots of successful people I know were forced to play music, and they hated it and resented their parents for it. They passed all their Royal Conservatory of Music exams, but they don't play anymore. No matter how much my brothers and I railed against it, my dad kept insisting. I'm intrinsically motivated, but he wanted me to be extrinsically motivated, to seek his approval through my performance in music. He'd rank the quality of each of our lessons, and at some point I realized that we never earned higher than a 7 out of 10. I must have still been in elementary school when I called him out on it one week where I knew I had practised a lot and the teacher praised me for my progress, so he begrudgingly rated me as a 9. He just wanted to put me on a hamster wheel of chasing his approval, which was always just out of reach.

Instead of piano, let's say someone uses that as a strategy in a relationship. "I know you don't love me now, but if I force you to be with me for a few years, you will learn to love me later." Instead of piano, let's say he forced me to play soccer. Sure, I would succeed and learn a few lessons about hard work, but shouldn't I have been in music instead? Does the area of practise even matter or is it more important that he force me through whichever one he chose? With this style of parenting, I wasn't allowed much of a say. That does produce short term results, but it doesn't foster a lifelong love of music. He always insisted we would appreciate it once we got older, that we would visit his grave and say "Thanks for forcing me to play piano, Dad."

Children perform better when you praise their efforts instead of their performance. That way you teach them to keep trying and never give up in pursuit of something they want, whereas praising their performance shows them that screwing up means losing your approval, causing them to perform worse. If I wanted to study music (to my memory, I didn't ask for it), it should have been because I wanted to. Laszlo Polgar, a Hungarian psychologist, theorized a method of raising children to be geniuses, counter to the idea that they are merely born out of luck. He found a woman who agreed to run this little experiment, and they raised three girls to be world chess champions. Part of the reason I think they were able to succeed was because the oldest daughter Susan became fascinated with chess on her own, not because her parents forced her to. But hey, how was my dad supposed to know that? Well, maybe it should have been a hint to him when we all dragged our feet in practising each week, so we had embarrassingly bad piano lessons where we wasted money because we couldn't play any better than the previous week, and then he'd beat us to motivate us to practise more. He did manage to negotiate a bulk discount with our piano teacher because there were four of us, so that was good, I suppose, but we could have saved a lot more money and beatings if he didn't force us into it though.

High Expectations Asian Father: All I want for you is to be happy. And a doctor.

Our playing piano was for his happiness, not for ours. He wanted to show us off to family, friends, and church members. One time he asked me to play piano in front of the entire Vietnamese church, but I was young and afraid. I didn't want to, and he nearly begged me to go out and perform. After I kept refusing, he got frustrated and beat me in his office. Afterwards, I wiped up my tears and went back downstairs to rejoin the English service, and my friends asked me what happened because my face was all red. I told them my dad hit me because I wouldn't play piano for the Vietnamese congregation, and they empathized with me and cracked some jokes to make me feel better. Maybe it was in my best interest to get over my stage fright and play, but really, he just wanted to show me off for his own glory and honour.

Studies show that physically disciplining your children doesn't make them any better behaved than kids that aren't. In fact, they're worse off; the beatings bringing with them a whole host of other problems, like violent tendencies and psychological problems in addition to a strained parent-child relationship. As Dr. Cox says in Scrubs,

"Every one of our parents does considerable emotional damage, and from what I've heard, it just might be the best part of being a parent."

There's certainly a huge factor of relief for parents that beat their children who need to take their frustrations with life and their families out on their kids. There is a loving way to discipline and teach your children, and then there was what my dad did.

J. Cole says that "The city on my shoulder, so no girl, you can't cry on it." My dad was too busy saving the world to really be present and engaged as a parent. I don't think it really mattered to him so long as we played piano to impress his friends. What were his goals in forcing us to play music and did he achieve them? Did we learn to persevere in the face of hardship? Did we ultimately become grateful to him for forcing us to play piano? What I learned from it was that even if things aren't working out, just keep forcing it to work, even if it destroys you. Exhibit A is my experience with Just Listen Audio. I wanted to start a business designing and manufacturing audio products, but even though there were a ton of red flags that told me it wasn't going to work out, I learned from piano that I should force myself forward regardless. I learned that no matter how well you perform, it's never good enough and you shouldn't feel good about it. Instead, you should beat yourself up so you do better next time. That little venture completely wiped my energy reserves and left me with little buffer for when Carrie started school, and we all know how well I'm handling that.

I did ultimately develop a love for music, but that was in spite of my dad, not because of him. It allowed me to express the pain he caused by forcing me to learn piano.

Piano gave me a foundation of musical sense to learn guitar and drums and Chris learned to keyboard and play bass, so later on, we both played in the church band for a couple years. I suppose the lessons served their purpose, but now I don't speak to my dad anymore. Was it worth it? Was he right? Was he successful? No matter what the answer is, he seems to get off with relatively little consequence because it's too late, it's all in the past. But once I'm in that position as a parent, I'll be criticized and scrutinized for the lifelong damage I'll cause to my own kids. Fun double standard. If you don't allow me to criticize my dad, then you aren't allowed an opinion if I neglect my kids and abuse them. I want to be in his position, with seemingly no amount of accountability, using the same excuses for years like "I did my best." I'll accept that I don't understand his situation fully and I wish someone would shed some light on this matter, but no one has been able to so far in all my years of complaining. Yes, I know, I'll understand once I have my own kids, when I reject their pleas for happiness and force them to bring me glory and honour, but that method of child-rearing really doesn't empower the child to make their own decisions. It didn't respect my boundaries or give me a voice. It set a pattern for our relationship where my dad always spoke over me and always knew better than me, and I was reduced to a secondary character in our one-on-one relationship. He did the best he could, but at the same time, he always insisted that he knew best. So when it worked for him, he knew best, and when he was wrong, he was just doing the best he could. He never accepted responsibility for any pain he caused me, but somehow he wants to take credit for all my successes. I haven't found peace in how my dad violated my boundaries.

I will grant that he was probably worried about more foundational problems as a father. But did you die?

I know none of you out there are really defending him like this, but you're witnessing what's it's like to recover from gaslighting, where the victim is made responsible for the abuser's actions. It's a perfect example of how defensive I get when there's no one arguing the other side; it's the complex PTSD's gift that keeps giving. My parents would absolve themselves of all my accusations, and then they would gaslight me. It was never enough for me to just say no to them. It's exhausting talking to them, so that's why I don't.

With the energy I recovered by not wasting it on my parents, I can live my life again. I like being a house-band. (Get it? Like being a housewife but as a husband. Carrie came up with that one.) Everything needs refilling or removing: tissues, sugar, garbage, groceries, etc. It's nice when one of us can proactively ensure all those things are at the levels we like. I even moisturize my skin every morning, whereas I used to not have time. I've been Pokewalking so much that my muscles and joints are protesting, which is a good problem to have. Time to rotate my exercise routines, whereas my problem used to be not exercising at all. The hardest thing to do still is doing nothing at all, but I'm getting there a lot more than I used to. Carrie's schedule is starting to free up more too. We're in the home stretch. I had previously written how I would start looking for work in November, but I'm still just trying to take things one day at a time. I don't feel ready yet, but it is on my mind. With all this free time and space, I can do whatever I want. Huzzah!

I've spent the past few weeks looking back at how much work I did to get here, and looking forward, it looks like pretty much a lifelong process. I'm feeling better than I ever have, safer and more stable. I'm now in a place where I can choose to engage with my problems, like my complex PTSD and defining and defending my boundaries, or I can simply do nothing, or I can just listen to music because it helps me to express my pain.

Jonathan Phan Lê @jon_le